Adolf Hitler wanted to be a professional artist.
As a young man, he gained some proficiency at drawing, made hundreds of prosaic works, some of which he sold to help pay the rent in Vienna. But it was not meant to be.
His application to the Academy of Fine Arts was twice rejected. School authorities deemed his figure work insufficient (he just didn’t seem interested in people, they noted) and suggested he consider architecture instead.
This early disappointment surely manifested itself deep within the young man’s psyche, prompting much of his early resentment against Jews (who, he insisted, controlled the arts in Vienna), against the corruption of big cities (which, he contended, harbored lazy degenerates dependent on government largesse and eager to dilute pure Aryan blood) and against truth-tellers and critics (who, he believed, undermined the autocrat’s agenda).
After consolidating power in the 1930s, Hitler sought his revenge. He marginalized the artists and critics; occupied much of Europe; killed his enemies, real and imagined; and attempted a systematic reinvention of European culture according to fascist Nazi principles.
All that modern degenerate art would have to go. But the great masterworks of bygone eras, when the art was noble and ennobling, when nations upheld traditional values, when the patriarchal figure reigned supreme, these were precious, these belonged in the Nazi collection.
The old Dutch masters were particularly desirable: those lovely domestic scenes, those wealthy merchants posing for the painter, those vibrant landscapes. These works fueled the Nazi effort to construct a mythical version of a glorious European past that valued hard work and self-sufficiency. The Dutch merchant class, which often was both subject and patron of these paintings, was emblematic of individualistic enterprise-driven success, something Hitler extolled.
Two of the Netherlands’ most important art dealers in the 1930s and 1940s were Benjamin and Nathan Katz, who operated a gallery in the city of Dieren called Firma D. Katz. To save Jewish lives, the two men struck deals with the Nazis and sold most of the paintings in their possession. Now, Benjamin Katz’s grandson, a Mount Pleasant resident who operates a record store on John Street in downtown Charleston, is suing the Dutch government in an effort to recover 144 works.
Bruce Berg has been battling the Dutch government for more than 10 years, he said. The first claim, filed in 2007, cost him $1.3 million in attorney fees and resulted in the recovery of only one painting, Ferdinand Bol’s “Man with a High Cap,” which he promptly auctioned for $900,000 in order to pay his lawyers, he said.
A question of survival
The new lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, once again claims that the art belongs to Berg’s family, and that the Dutch government’s rationale for maintaining ownership is faulty. Dutch authorities say the paintings were sold to Nazis by licensed dealers and were not relinquished involuntarily or under duress, and that the works are national treasures that belong to the Dutch public.
Berg, instead, alleges that any commercial transaction with Nazis included some degree of duress, and that in his family’s case, the paintings were sold at steep discounts literally to save lives.
An emailed request for comment from the Dutch Restitutions Committee and the Culture Ministry went unanswered. Eric Idema, general secretary of the Restitutions Committee, told The New York Times last month that the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff.
“Unlike private owners, who don’t have to prove that the sale between 1940 and 1945 was involuntary, art dealers still have to prove that it was involuntary,” he said.
Berg said his art-dealing ancestors have been wrongly accused of collaborating with the Nazis because they sold art to Hitler's agents. Berg said his grandfather and uncle had no choice. It was a question of survival.
“They targeted the family in 1939,” Berg said. “On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Holland.” Dutch forces surrendered on May 14.
Late in 1939, morphine-addicted Hermann Goering, the No. 2 man in the Nazi Party and founder of the Gestapo, paid a visit to the Katz’s gallery, armed with a pistol, and pointed to the paintings he wanted to buy, which were sold at “a severe discount,” Berg said.
Soon after, the Katzes sold hundreds of masterworks for a fraction of their worth in an effort to generate the money they would need to send family to safety abroad, according to the lawsuit. Hitler’s art buyer, Hans Posse, visited the gallery and ultimately purchased more than 30 paintings for the Fuehrer, and several more for others or himself.
Alois Miedl, a Munich-born Nazi sympathizer who purchased art for Goering and socialized with Hitler, procured at least 85 pieces from Nathan Katz, according to the suit. Miedl was known for threatening Jewish art dealers: Either sell at reduced prices or risk being looted by the Gestapo.
'It's not theirs'
Some experts dispute the claim that the Katzes sold art reluctantly and under pressure.
Gerard Aalders, a historian at the Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam and an author of books about Nazi pillaging in Holland, called the claim “absolute nonsense,” when it was first made in 2007. “The archives clearly show that Katz willingly sold works to a friend under no duress,” Aalders told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “He also continued to sell to the Germans even after he had escaped to Switzerland.”
But Berg’s attorneys, Rebecca Gibson and Joel Androphy, have little patience for such arguments.
“The family has been deprived of the art that belongs to them,” Androphy said. “It has no business in the hands of the Dutch government. It’s not theirs. It never has been theirs and never will be theirs if we have anything to say about it.”
The two lawyers said they are determined to right the wrongs of Nazi pillage during World War II.
“This is a legacy for the family,” Androphy said. “They can’t bring back their relatives that perished, but they can at least bring back some items that were theirs to preserve the family legacy and heritage.”
They argue that, according to international law, the Dutch government was meant to hold the art in trust after the war and to return it all as claims were made.
Gibson said the Dutch argument against returning the art is puzzling.
“Museum officials have said they want to clean their hands of tainted art, yet the restitution committee has refused,” she said. “The main frustrating thing is this arbitrary consideration they have: anybody in the art business, since the objective was selling art, (did so willingly and not) under duress."
The lawyers said retention of the art violates international law, contradicts a Dutch law issued by the government in exile asserting that any transaction with the Nazis would be automatically voided, and ignores the reality of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, which imposed duress on anyone who interacted with Germans.
“When Goering comes to your gallery and wants certain pieces of art, what are you supposed to do?” Androphy said.
Berg said his uncle and grandfather were able to strike a deal with the Nazis in 1942. In exchange for Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Dirck Jansz. Pesser," the Germans would permit 25 members of the Katz family to leave the country (65 others were left behind to perish in the concentration camps).
Another work of art was traded for the life of the Katz brothers’ mother, who had been confined in a deportation camp.
The Rembrandt portrait was returned to the family after the war and given to the Los Angeles County Museum, Berg said. In September 1949, Nathan Katz committed suicide, one of many Holocaust survivors who could not endure the post-war suffering.
If more, or all, of the disputed art is returned by the Dutch government to Berg and his family, it will likely be auctioned, Berg said. The proceeds will help provide reparations to aging family members. It also will salve a nearly 80-year-old wound.
“I dream about the wrong that they did,” Berg said.